First Person

Charter schools no silver bullet for integration, but a start

Last month, Jennifer Stillman shared her research on school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods as part of our Useable Knowledge feature. In her initial post, Stillman said that gentrifying neighborhoods offer a unique opportunity for racially diverse schools. She proposed two policies to facilitate that goal, including the establishment of charter schools who prioritize a diverse student body. Today, Stillman responds to questions and comments by readers.

The comments posted in response to my recent GothamSchools Q&A on gentrification and schools were very helpful in pushing my thinking, and I greatly appreciate those readers who took the time to engage with my work. For those who read my interview but did not follow the back and forth in the comments section, let me quickly summarize what I heard from readers.

Two major themes were repeatedly expressed in some form: 1) that charter schools are not the answer to school integration, especially those being proposed by the Tapestry Project, an organization many of the commenters said they find highly suspect because of its affiliation with Eva Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, and 2) that the voice of the non-gentry is not being given its due, and that poor children of color and their families risk losing out during the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods.

I will start by addressing concern number two, as the point of my research, which was probably not adequately communicated in my short interview, was to understand the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods for the benefit of both gentry and non-gentry.

My research focus on the school choice process of gentry parents is because I believe, due to their greater access to resources, they are the ones who must choose to integrate for it to happen. But, as I expressed in response to one reader’s comments, it isn’t just the white, middle-class parents who would benefit from diverse schools. It is the non-white, poor children in our city who are hurt the most by the persistence of mostly segregated public school options. Diverse schools will not be white schools. They will be diverse. And racial and socio-economic diversity has been shown in other research to benefit low-income children who typically do not thrive in segregated settings. My background includes a stint as an urban high school teacher; I am not just a gentry mom. My research was inspired by my deep concern about school segregation from both perspectives.

That said, another reader’s point that poor children of color may not be served well by the gentry’s preferences, and that they actually might be better served by a school that “feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone” for the gentry, is a point that I continue to struggle with. As I expressed to the reader, my teacher training program left me convinced that progressive, student-centered methods are most effective. And I know I want that for my own children. And I can’t help but think that what I want for my own children is what I should want for all children. But others have argued for the value of a more authoritarian style of pedagogy in certain circumstances, most notably Lisa Delpit in “Other People’s Children.” All kids learn differently, of course, but I’m not convinced that breaks down along race and class lines. Further research may or may not provide greater clarity on this point. Issues of race and class are emotional and intensely personal, and logical arguments about what should be, based on the research (including my own), are lacking in their ability to account for all of the nuanced realities of the day to day that people experience.

In response to the many concerns readers expressed about the Tapestry Project and my support for charter schools focused on integration, let me first reiterate that my goal of creating diverse schools is because I think diversity benefits all children (not only the gentry children, but also the poor children of color currently attending segregated schools). What charter schools have as a policy tool is the ability to start as new schools, which are much easier to craft into diverse schools with the right outreach efforts. Changing existing schools, though possible, is very challenging.

A recent New York Times article, “Integrating a School, One Child at a Time,” focused on magnet schools as a tool for integration. Magnet grants are given to existing public schools, which means that although they have the same freedom as charter schools to recruit from outside restrictive zone lines, they still must face the challenge of changing an existing school culture and attracting white, middle-class families to a school that has a reputation as segregated. The most successful (in terms of integration) magnet school in the Times story was the one that managed to start new by phasing out an old school. I favor charters as a possible policy tool primarily because of the newness factor. But I certainly don’t see them as some sort of silver bullet, and I realize that all approaches have drawbacks that need to be considered.

In closing, I would like to thank all GothamSchools readers for engaging in this public arena with me about a difficult, sensitive topic, and I hope those who are interested in trying to integrate schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, or those who disagree that this is an idea even worth pursuing, will continue to engage with me on my website or in person. I live in New York City and am always available for a lively debate over coffee or beer (contact information on my website).

If improving urban schools were easy, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation. I am always looking for better ways, and always trying to evolve my thinking as to what we, as a society, should be trying to do.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.